WASHINGTON — The nation is on the verge of a sweeping shift in education, with states poised to gain greater control over school accountability and the ways testing is used to evaluate teachers, schools and student progress.
Although the federally mandated reading and math exams in grades three to eight and in high school continue, legislation expected to be voted on by the Senate today encourages states to set caps on overall testing.
Senate approval would send the bill to the White House, where President Barack Obama is expected to sign it.
The legislation is a makeover of the widely criticized No Child Left Behind Act, which ushered in a new era of testing and accountability. Under the landmark 2002 law, Washington played a significant role in how schools and teachers were judged and what kinds of sanctions to prescribe for underperformers.
Those days would be gone under the new legislation.
The measure would substantially limit the federal government's influence, barring the Education Department from telling states and local districts how to assess the performance of schools and teachers.
Instead, states and districts would come up with their own goals for schools, design their own measures of achievement and progress, and decide how to turn around struggling schools. Testing would be one factor considered, but other measures could include graduation rates and school climate.
States, however, would be required to intervene in their lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, in high schools with high dropout rates and in schools with stubborn achievement gaps — something Democrats pushed.
The bill would end the waivers the Obama administration has given to more than 40 states, exemptions granted around the more onerous parts of No Child when it became clear that requirements such as having all students proficient in reading and math by 2014 would not be met.
"We have an opportunity to inaugurate a new era of innovation and excellence in student achievement by restoring responsibility to states and classroom teachers," said Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the head of the Senate Education Committee and a chief architect of the bill along with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington.
"This new law will result in fewer and better tests because states and classroom teachers will be deciding what to do about the results of the tests," Alexander, a former U.S. education secretary, added ahead of today's vote.
A core feature of No Child remains: the annual statewide testing in math and reading. But schools would be required to publicly report the results by students' race, family income and disability status.
Murray, a former preschool teacher, said the legislation would still hold underperforming schools responsible to ensure all students — minority children, poor kids and others — get a quality education. She also praised the bill for including a key priority for her, a focus on early childhood education.
"For the first time ever, our federal education law will recognize the importance of early learning with the grant program that we have put in place. It's a very good beginning step for our nation," Murray said.
The new grant program would use existing funding to help states improve quality and access to preschool.
On Common Core, reviled by many conservatives, the bill says the Education Department may not mandate or give states incentives to adopt or maintain any particular set of academic standards.
The Common Core college and career-ready curriculum guidelines were created by the states, but became a flash point for those critical of Washington influence in schools. The Obama administration offered grants through its Race to the Top program for states that adopted strong academic standards for students.
No Child Left Behind passed with broad support in Congress and was signed by President George W. Bush.
It was praised for its main intent, which was to use annual tests to identify achievement gaps in learning and failing schools in need of support. But it was later criticized for a heavy-handed federal approach that imposed sanctions when schools came up short — leading teachers, administrators and others to worry that the high stakes associated with the tests was creating a culture of over-testing and hurting classroom learning.
No Child has been up for reauthorization since 2007, but previous attempts to renew the law have been caught in a broader debate over the federal role in public education.